Stacking my habits

This is an idea that has gotten a lot of press lately in personal development circles.
It’s a fairly simple concept. According to this theory, a lot of what we do is habit. We get up in the morning and have a cup of tea, brush our teeth, have a shower and get dressed. We do all these things without thinking, one simply leads naturally to and provokes the next. The idea behind habit stacking is that we can use this tendency to build up good habits in the same way, so that once we’ve showered we get dressed and that leads naturally to going for a run or starting work on our personal project or reading poetry, whatever element you want to add to your life.

A level under the concept of habits is the idea of finite willpower. According to a lot of studies, each of us are accorded only a certain amount of willpower each day. So if we use all of that willpower stopping ourselves from eating a MacMuffin first thing in the morning, then by the time dinner comes around and we’re craving pizza we no longer have the willpower to resist. The theory is that if we have a habit of eating yoghurt and fruit in the morning then we don’t have to use willpower to resist the unhealthy choice and so will have some willpower left to resist a meat lovers in the evening.

It makes sense. By the end of the day I’m tired and making even the smallest decision is difficult. The idea of having a knock down drag out fight with my stomach over food choices is tiring. It’s easier just to give it what it wants. On the other hand, if you are in the habit of coming home and eating a salad wrap with a glass of water, and your stomach is expecting that, there is no fight. And yes, I’m aware that talking about my stomach as if it was a separate, thinking being is a little weird. But when it’s craving a Quarter Pounder meal, and won’t listen to the rest of me complain that it makes me feel slow and sleepy and nauseous, it can feel like it has a mind of its own.

So, habit stacking makes sense. Except then you think of how hard it is to get to the gym four times a week and start to imagine how much more difficult it would be to add a new daily habit and you roll over and go back to sleep. Because that’s one of the keys to habit stacking, it has to be an every day thing or it doesn’t really work. It has to occur at the same time, after the same activities, every day. And working out every day sounds like a terrific waste of time to someone who has a million other things cluttering up their to do list.

That’s where another modification comes in. Keep it small. Make the habit small, so tiny that it’s simple to do and cross off your life. If you want to add exercise, make it one yoga pose a day. One pose and you feel good about yourself for doing your exercise. One movement, no matter what. The idea behind this is that once you do your one pose, once you start, you are much more likely to keep going. It’s the initial movement that is difficult. Once you’re moving, inertia alone can keep you going.

To be honest, I have seen the good and bad parts of this idea. I have a habit stack and I do it most days. I do some yoga, some non-fiction reading and a few other bits and pieces. I do it in the evening, when I am most energetic, an hour after eating and before my usual cup of tea time. I’ve had varying success with it, mostly because if I tell my brain that one pose is okay, then it is totally happy just doing that. I can’t seem to trick my brain into continuing to move when it knows that it only has to do one thing. So using this idea to start an exercise routine has been less than helpful for me.

But it’s been helpful for other aspects, in developing a meditation habit, in helping me wading through non-fiction books that are less than fascinating but essential for my continued learning project. It’s taught me more about my brain and how it works and how not to get around it. And it’s kind of nice to tick the stack off my list each day, feels like I’m moving forward slowly, in incremental parts. Doing something every day, just the smallest bit of things that I’ve wanted to add to my life, adds up. After a year, it’ll add up to quite a bit of work. It’s like taking a journey, one step at a time.

All up, if I had to put a number on it, I’d say that’s it’s been about 70% effective in my life.

And that’s really not too bad.

Like everything else on here, try it. If you like it, keep it and watch tiny steps you take towards a bigger goal. And if you don’t like it, try something else. Nobody ever said that there was only one way to do anything, least of all me.


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